It Is At The Bottom Of Life We Must Begin

What did Booker T. Washington mean when he said "it is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities."

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Booker T. Washington delivered a speech that came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise" in 1895, to a largely white audience. The speech was known as a compromise because Washington felt that blacks and whites needed each other to prosper in the South. Washington was sometimes criticized for his...

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Booker T. Washington delivered a speech that came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise" in 1895, to a largely white audience. The speech was known as a compromise because Washington felt that blacks and whites needed each other to prosper in the South. Washington was sometimes criticized for his "accommodationist" views of keeping African Americans still primarily separate from white people, as evidenced through his statement that black people can be as "separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand." Washington did hold southern whites accountable for the economic situation of blacks in the South. He requested that, instead of seeking to fill jobs through immigrants, white southerners should look no further than their black neighbors.

During his speech, Washington said, "It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities." In this statement, Washington encouraged African Americans to be proud of the work they performed regardless of the social status of that work. In his words, "there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem." Washington urged African Americans to earn respect through hard work, not through social agitation.

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This quote is taken from Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address.”  This was a speech that he, as a leading black educator, was invited to give in 1895.  The audience was largely white.  In this speech, Washington is encouraging blacks and whites in the South to “cast down your buckets where you are.”  He wants the white people to hire black people instead of trying to attract immigrants or others to work in the South.  He wants black people to be willing to work doing manual labor in the South.  He doesn’t want them to think that this kind of work is demeaning. 

The passage that you quote is addressed to the African Americans.  Washington is saying that blacks should realize that it is natural for them to be largely confined to menial work.  This is what he means when he says that they have to begin at the bottom in life.  Washington also realizes that many African Americans will feel angry at whites.  They will remember slavery and they will know that the whites have kept oppressing them since slavery ended.  He is encouraging them to get over it.  He is telling them not to let their anger (their grievances) prevent them from working for the white people (opportunities).

So, Washington is telling black people to accept their place in life (everyone has to start at the bottom) and to take the opportunities presented to them, even if it means working for the white people.

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